First-timers running for office

When I decided that I was going to run for office the first thing I did was look up the resumes of my current representatives. Most of them began their political careers representing their neighborhoods on city councils and other local organizations. Some were elected mayor or served on school boards. 

Even in the age of Trumpian disregard for political experience, I still assumed I would need this background. California politics is different, I was told. Voters still care about this stuff. They want to see that you’ve paid your dues and don’t feel entitled to an oversized office. 

So I met with my District 2 County Supervisor, Candace Andersen, who graciously gave me an hour-long pep talk in her office about how to get started in local politics. There were countless boards, commissions, and volunteering opportunities to choose from. And that was the problem. How do you choose? 

I applied to a homelessness commission but was told that since I live in unincorporated Walnut Creek, the seat was not available to me. I applied to the Contra Costa Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and was summoned to interview but did not make the final cut. I interviewed in front of a panel including Supervisor Andersen and Don Tatzin, the mayor of Lafayette. After being notified of my rejection, I reviewed the resumes of the finalists distributed in the agenda packet for the March 14, 2018 meeting and recognized I was way out of my league. These were former mayors and city managers, retired real estate executives and environmental professionals. I was an entrepreneur and young dad. I didn’t stand a chance. 

In late 2017 and early 2018 another path to public service started to crystalize. I noticed that the two Democratic Party candidates running for State Assembly in my district against incumbent Catharine Baker were a lot like me. Certainly a lot more like me than the applicants for LAFCO. Tom Tarantino is an army veteran with an extensive policy career in both the public and private sectors. Rebecca Bauer-Kahan is a lawyer and teacher. Neither had run a campaign or held a public office before running for State Assembly. Since they both lived near me, in the northern part of Assembly District 16, I made it a point to meet both of them. Since Tom was closer to me in background so I could probably apply parallels between his campaign and my future campaign, I decided to get to know him better. Tom dropped out before the June 5 primary election guaranteeing that Rebecca would advance the general. The primary results showed her down by 10,000 votes and 13 points. 

My friend in Colorado, Zach Neumann, also lost his primary by 2,000 votes and 7 points. It was Zach’s first campaign and also the first campaign of the winner of that Democratic primary, Robert Rodriguez

The only congressional race I followed was Brian Forde’s campaign in California district 45, currently held by Republican Mimi Walters. I donated to Brian’s campaign and attended a swanky house party in San Francisco to support him because of his tech background and teaching experience at MIT Sloan, where I got my MBA. I just thought it was cool that someone like him was running for Congress, and again I was surprised to see that he’d held no other public office. He worked in the White House, which is amazing experience, but it did not translate to a winning campaign. Brian came in fourth, getting only six percent of the vote.   

I am now following Josh Harder’s congressional campaign because he too seems a lot like me. He’s young, worked in tech and venture capital, and went to the Harvard Kennedy School. The 10th congressional district is an area representing a large swath of the central valley. In a very competitive primary, Harder came out on top of the other Democrats but still 20,000 votes and 19 points behind Republican incumbent Jeff Denham.  

I’m not sure what the lesson is here. Maybe there isn’t one. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary for her Congressional District representing the Bronx and she had no campaign experience. Catherine Baker had some neighborhood organization experience but wasn’t on the city council and won her first race for Assembly. 

Perhaps some of it is luck. Perhaps it’s hard work. I’m convinced that for me to win I’ll need hefty doses of both. As I said at the end of my book: it takes a lot of hard work to get lucky. 

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